Feeling Lonely? Do You Know It's a Young Person Thing?

Whilst more often associated with the elderly, research shows that surprisingly, it’s young people who are experiencing the highest rates of loneliness in Australia and New Zealand, and more so during the COVID-19 pandemic. Interestingly, the most surprised to find this out are young people themselves.

As part of our Future Ready Program WSP recently ran an Innovation Lab interactive seminar on how to design out loneliness in infrastructure.


When asked who do think is most at risk of feeling lonely, 25% of the 326 attendees nominated the elderly with only 15% suggesting it is the younger members within our society. Additional feedback from the young people attending the virtual event included their concern at their lack of awareness in the level of impact this is having on the mental health of their peers.


“While we are bouncing back from the shock of the pandemic and trying to maintain quality relationships, the basic human need of connection is under pressure,” said Graham Pointer, Future Ready Lead for WSP Australia, in his opening remarks.


Presenters included Holly Walker, Deputy Director & WSP Fellow at the Helen Clark Foundation; Michael Tyrpenou, WSP Principal in Social Strategy & Design; and Jean Clendinning, WSP Head of Organisational Development.

Loneliness and Being Alone Are Not the Same Thing

In her June 2020 report ‘Alone Together: The Risk of Loneliness in Aotearoa New Zealand Following COVID-19 And How Public Policy Can Help’, Holly Walker highlighted three types of loneliness: ‘emotional’ which is related to the lack or loss of an intimate other; ‘social’ when someone is feeling unconnected to a wider network of family and friends; and ‘existential’ when personal feeling lacks meaning and purpose in life.


“At its core, loneliness is the unmet need for connection – when the opportunities for connection in our daily lives are either not numerous enough or not meaningful enough to meet our human need,” stated Holly.


“Having a large number of connections does not necessarily protect against loneliness. Research suggests that it is quality rather than the quantity of social connections that has the biggest impact.


“Humans are social animals. Perceiving ourselves to be separated from the group or left out, can trigger an automatic threat response in the brain. Similar to fight, flight or freeze response, it can help us manage an immediate danger, but it is not intended to be maintained for long periods due to the stress it places on our body.


“If we stay in this zone long-term it can create hormonal imbalances, disrupt sleep and elevate feelings leading to mental and physiological health risks such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety. Over time, the effects of loneliness can accelerate the process of ageing, presenting a significant public health challenge.”

Who is Most at Risk from Loneliness?

New Zealand research undertaken in 2018 identified the following key groups:

  • People who are unemployed
  • People living in low-income households
  • Sole parents
  • Indigenous people
  • Young people


In addition, it concluded that older people are the least likely age group to feel lonely.


SOURCE: Australian Loneliness Report - Australian Psychological Society, Swinburne University, November 2018


Also in 2018, the Australian Psychological Society in collaboration with Swinburne University undertook a study on loneliness in Australia to examine its prevalence and the affects on physical and mental health.



This research concluded:

  • Australians over 65 years are least lonely; other age groups experienced similar levels of loneliness
  • Australians over 65 years also report better physical and mental health, lower levels of social interaction anxiety, fewer depression symptoms and greater social interaction than younger Australians
  • Younger adults report significantly more social interaction anxiety than older Australians, and
    - More social interaction anxiety (among 18 to 35-year-olds)
    - More depression symptoms (among 18 to 25-year-olds)
  • Higher levels of loneliness are associated with higher levels of social interaction anxiety, less social interaction, poorer psychological wellbeing and poorer quality of life.


“In a lot of our popular discourse about loneliness, we focus on it as an issue for older people,” Holly Walker emphasised.


By a huge margin it is young people aged 15-24 who report the highest levels of loneliness, and we need to take that seriously in our efforts to tackle the problem. This is largely masked in public conversation.”

COVID-19, Loneliness and the Most Vulnerable

The Australian National University (ANU) Centre for Social Research and Methods documented that in May 2020 young Australians (18 to 24 year-olds) experienced the greatest job losses and reduction in hours worked.


It is not surprising therefore that the age group most affected by lost career opportunity, job insecurity and unemployment due to the pandemic, feels the loneliest. Work provides more than just income but also an important social network – friendship with colleagues, clients and customers – and crucially the day to day interactions that create an isolation buffer.


“For many, work is also an important source of personal identity and purpose, so that loss of employment can trigger feelings of purposeless or existential loneliness,” continued Holly.


“The close correlation between loneliness and low income is likely to occur because poverty creates barriers that can hinder the formation and maintenance of social relationships, through lack of access to resources like free time to socialise and funds for recreational activities.”


In April 2020 the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods interviewed 3155 Australians for their report outlining the impacts of COVID-19 on mental health in Australia and found the increase in severe psychological distress was largely concentrated on young people with an increase from 14% in 2017 to 22.3% in 2020 for 18 to 24 year-olds and an increase from 11.5% to 18% for those aged 25 to 34 years.


Social impact company Socialsuite also undertook a COVID-19 survey involving 9421 respondents from Australia, New Zealand, the UK and East Africa and found 41% of people aged 18 to 41 years reported feeling lonely as a result of the pandemic lockdowns compared to a general population average of 29%.



SOURCE: ‘Alone Together’ by Holly Walker, Deputy Director & WSP Fellow - Helen Clark Foundation, June 2020


 “Surveys suggested an initial spike in self-reported loneliness early in the lockdown with those already vulnerable most affected – young people and those on low income or who lost work, saw a huge increase,” Holly concurred.


“However there has been some evidence of loneliness levelling off since then and even a positive effect from people pulling together, however this might only be true at the aggregate population level and we need to be very alert to how those most at risk are faring.”

Can We Solve Loneliness?

Holly concluded her presentation with the identification of the ‘Six Planks’ by the Helen Clark Foundation and WSP, “Ultimately what works to reduce loneliness is more frequent and especially more meaningful social interactions with other people. What this looks like differs for everyone depending on culture, family, community, values, and preferences. So, it’s not something decision-makers or planners can easily influence directly. What we can do though is create the conditions that allow meaningful social interactions to flourish.”


Six Planks of an Effective Policy Response to Loneliness:

  1. Make sure people have enough money
  2. Close the digital divide
  3. Help communities do their magic
  4. Create friendly streets and neighbourhoods
  5. Prioritise those already lonely
  6. Invest in frontline mental health services


Getting Future Ready

Survey responses by those attending the Innovation Labs seminar supported the research and outcome results. When asked ‘what does loneliness mean to you?’, answers included words such as sadness, isolation, disconnection, vulnerable, depression and lockdown.


When asked ‘what do you think contributes to loneliness?’, 30% of attendees described lack of social and physical connection, human connection and physical and emotional isolation.


Respondents were also asked how often they stop and socialise around their neighbourhood. 26% said two to three times a week and nine per cent said every day. That’s less than half who socialise on a regular basis.


However, when asked ‘where and when does this happen?’ the majority is when they are active – walking and exercising (20%), at the park (12%), in the front yard/driveway (10%) and nine per cent responded specifically when they walk the dog. Another 10% did their socialising at the local café.


In 2016, 62% (5.7 million) Australian households owned a pet, with the two most common types being dogs (38%) and cats (29%). Around two-thirds of dog and cat owners reported ‘companionship’ as a reason for owning a pet and 60% of owners felt more socially connected.


It’s not surprising then, when we asked our attendees how we can create more friendly neighbourhoods to tackle isolation and loneliness that many offered a solution that involved access to shared park and open spaces, public meeting places and vegetable gardens, active public spaces and street libraries as well as more local shops.


According to Michael Tyrpenou, WSP’s Principal in Social Strategy & Design, “This is where our focus on human-centred design plays a key role in the development of infrastructure. At its core is empathy and understanding – taking a step back and thinking about people first.


“As designers, our role is to understand the needs of communities by finding solutions to better meet these needs, but we are often prone to making assumptions about end users and community members. However, to create great places for our communities to thrive, the design of infrastructure should reflect these diverse needs, culture and experiences of people and place.


“By studying communities and diving deeper into how they live, work and play through qualitative and quantitative research, we can gather evidence to support better decision making in design and engineering,” adds Michael. “With greater understanding, we achieve better outcomes and demystify stereotypes and long held assumptions about people.


“A perfect example of this is in the consideration of young people and their relationship with the built environment. Our job is to understand what is making them feel lonelier than others in society. This could be done through interviews, observation of interaction in public spaces, research into key drivers etcetera. The more we understand, the better we can design with the needs of the users in mind. In this way, our design process can drive social value by understanding the inextricable link between people and places, rather than solely focusing on the infrastructure solution itself.”


What to do When You Feel Lonely

As part of our commitment to helping communities thrive, in 2019 WSP’s Learning & Development team proactively sought internal consultation with our people to gain insight into challenges they faced finding balance across professional delivery, wellbeing and growth. Out of those consultations grew Mindfulness @ Work ([email protected]) and an initiative of [email protected] is Mindful Monday.


Jean Clendinning, WSP Head of Organisational Development explained, “Every Monday our employees receive a Mindful Monday guide and guided meditation. Feedback from colleagues led also to the creation of a podcast for those who prefer to listen and we have now made it available outside of the firm, so our clients, stakeholders and community members can benefit from it as well here.


“These tools include useful tips and practices for work and at home to embed mindfulness into the everyday and a thought for reflection.


“Given what we have all been through this year, Mindful Monday is useful to combatting loneliness as well as other stresses.”


For more information on Designing Out Loneliness, contact Michael Tyrpenou, WSP Principal in Social Strategy & Design.

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